PhD Thesis in Socio Informatics

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In 2019 I completed a PhD in Socio-Informatics at Stellenbosch University.

The research concerned our behaviour with technology (specifically multitasking) and how this behaviour relates to our capacities to maintain focus and concentrate on what we need to do to succeed in our endeavours.

The thesis, titled “Media Multitasking and Cognitive Control: Assessing the Feasibility of an Intervention Requiring the Self-regulation of Smartphone Use”, can be accessed on SunScholar.

Media multitasking and Cognitive Control: Assessing the Feasibility of an Intervention Requiring the Self-Regulation of Smartphone Use (PhD Thesis) Socio-Informatics, Information Science, Stellenbosch University

Increasingly our personal, work, and social contexts are characterised by engagements with communications media. Adapting to and coping in this hyper-connected world has cultivated high levels of media multitasking —the simultaneous use of one medium along- side other media or non-media activities. Over the preceding decade researchers have investigated possible associations between media multitasking and changes in cognitive control. While extant research is characterised by both convergent and divergent findings, overall, current evidence supports the suggestion that those who frequently engage in me- dia multitasking are more likely to underperform relative to lighter media multitaskers in a number of cognitive domains. In particular, research suggests that media multitasking is negatively associated with attentional capacities, working memory, task-switching ability, and interference management. In response to calls for investigations considering the remedial efficacy of interventions targeting media multitasking and related cognitive effects the study presented in this dissertation endeavoured, firstly, to investigate existing behavioural interventions targeting cognitive outcomes associated with media multitask- ing; secondly, to develop a novel media multitasking intervention; and, thirdly, to assess the feasibility of this intervention for a student population.

To address the study objectives a three-phase mixed-methods investigation was executed. Owing to the interdisciplinary nature of research in this domain, the first phase involved reviewing relevant literature from cognitive psychology, media and communication, and social informatics to provide a conceptual foundation for the phases to follow. Subse- quently, building on theories of behaviour, cognition, media use, and self-regulation the patterns and drivers of media multitasking were considered and summarised through the provision of an integrative model of media multitasking behaviour. While not empirically tested in this study, the model, as a summary of previous research, guided the subsequent intervention evaluations. The phase concluded with an evaluation of the current state of research into associations between media multitasking and cognitive control.

In phase two a systematic review methodology was adopted to consider previous inter- ventions targeting the effects of media multitasking on executive functioning. This review aimed to determine, firstly, the nature of interventions assessed, secondly, the efficacy of these interventions in terms of both behaviour change and changes in outcomes related to cognitive control and, finally, to identify the factors affecting implementation. At the time of review interventions fell into three categories: awareness, restriction, and mindfulness. While some were shown to have been effective at changing behaviour or cognitive outcomes, no single category contains interventions which, categorically, produced im- provements in attention-related performance. Extending from this synthesis key research gaps are identified, with suggestions for future research proposed.

In the third phase, informed by the outcomes of the review and the theoretical basis established in phase one, a novel media multitasking intervention was developed. To produce rich insights into the feasibility of the proposed intervention and related aspects of behaviour with technology, a mixed-methods design involving the collection of both quantitative and qualitative data was implemented. Specifically, to assess the demand, acceptability, implementation, and efficacy dimensions of feasibility, the pre/post design involved the collection of quantitative data relating to media multitasking, demographics, cognitive control, everyday executive functioning, and intervention-application, as well as qualitative interview data relating to experiences and impressions of the intervention.

Following from these methods the overall feasibility of the intervention was analysed. While the implementation and demand dimensions of the intervention were regarded to be feasible, acceptability was shown to be only partially feasible. Moreover, for the intended outcomes, the intervention was shown not to be effective. No evidence to support the targeted improvements in cognitive control ability were found. Despite this. the intervention was seen to bring about behavioural changes and engender increased instances of single-tasking. This was seen to be a positive outcome and prompts consideration of the differences between state-level effects and trait-level effects. Consequently, it is proposed that, as an intervention targeting improvements in cognitive control, the assessed procedures are not feasible but, as an intervention targeting alignment between media behaviour and longer-term goals, preliminary support for its feasibility was shown. While many of the findings are particularly nuanced and open up new questions, the outcomes hold a number of important implications for research and practice in a variety of domains. The study findings are of interest because of their relevance for research concerning media multitasking interventions, associations between media multitasking and cognitive control and, more generally, behaviour with technology.